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Evoke Emotions To Help Students Learn

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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As the students were working on their bell ringer today (recalling radioactive decay equations), I stood in the middle of class and read the following to them:

He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands. Others, because of pain, held their arms up as if carrying something in both hands. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent, and showed no expression whatsoever. - "Hiroshima" by John Hersey

Then, I showed them haunting imprints of people killed by the blast...

This was my prelude to starting the discussion on nuclear fission and fusion in chemistry today. And, while the images students undoubtedly saw in their minds upon hearing the above story were gruesome, my purpose was clear. I wanted to evoke strong emotions.

I am reading "Brain Rules" by John Medina, which I enjoy and highly recommend, as the guy is an incredible writer, in addition to being a college professor and a brain guru. I recently finished a chapter titled "Attention" in which Dr. Medina explains how to grab and hold students' focus throughout the lesson.

One of the strategies he uses in his college lectures is employing "hooks." A hook is an emotionally competent stimulus (ECS) or an event that triggers strong emotions. All learning has emotions associated with it, but the stronger they are the better encoded the information becomes. During an emotionally charged event, out brain releases dopamine, which helps information processing and improves memory formation.

Thus, the "Hiroshima" story I read was a hook. But it wasn't just emotionally charged. It was also relevant, which is another key ingredient to a successful hook. If the hook information is unrelated to the topic you're getting ready to discuss, it will not be effective.

Then I got to talking about the pros and cons of nuclear reactions (Hiroshima was hit with a fission bomb named "Little Boy") and gave examples of fission and fusion reactions. That took about 10 minutes followed by students completing and identifying nuclear equations in small groups.

Remember the magic number 10. It is the number of minutes you can hold an audience's attention before it spikes way down. So...

1. Grab your audience with a hook to evoke emotions.

2. Teach 1 big concept for 9 minutes. Explain the big idea. elaborate. Give examples.

3a. Have students apply the concept and teach each other.

3b. Have a new hook ready if you want to keep going for another 10 minutes. The hook gives your audience a much needed brain break and can be used to introduce the next big idea.

4. Repeat, and keep it to 3 (maybe 4) big concepts tops. Less is more.

Hey. Thanks for reading! What do you think about using emotions in the classroom? Leave a comment or Sign Up for my Newsletter and we'll learn together.

You Have The Power To Change The World. Use It Often.


Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina

Hiroshima By John Hersey

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Oskar is a Science, Engineering, and Learning How to Learn teacher and an author of the Crush School Book Series.

His professional interests are brain-based teaching and learning, flexible seating (#StarbucksMyRoom founder), social-emotional learning, social justice, and using technology to enhance learning.

He is also a fan of the Jedi order (and uses DA FORCE frequently), ninjas, and the superhero in all of us. He is on a Quest to Change the World because he can. We all can.

  • Gillian Judson @perfinker
    Gillian Judson @perfinker Tuesday, 27 September 2016

    HI Oskar. Love your post! (obviously) The one thing I'd like to say in response is the "hook" part--it infers that we don't need emotion ALL THE WAY THROUGH. Many people think about imagination that way. As the "hook"--before the "regular" part of learning is done. "Hooking" suggests a starting position rather than a culture/context of engagement. So, also given we want--as you say--to indicate that first "hit" to set learning in motion, what other metaphor might we use? I often teach about imaginative/EMOTIONAL engagement as the "Hug"--it surrounds, in envelopes...The strangle hold? LOL. Thoughts?
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  • Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy
    Oskar Cymerman | @CrushSchoolSpy Wednesday, 28 September 2016

    Thanks Gillian! I believe all learning is accompanied by emotions. Evoking strong emotions gives students a dopamine kick, which gets them off to a good start, but as teachers we do need to strive to make all learning memorable. Hopefully, the hook will lead to higher motivation and interest throughout the activity, as a good stimulus should.

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